Assessment

OCR Issues Guidelines on Using Tests For High-Stakes Decisions on Students

By Lynn Olson — January 10, 2001 2 min read
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The Department of Education’s office for civil rights has released the final version of a long-awaited resource guide on the use of tests in making high- stakes decisions about students. But department officials stressed that the guide makes no new law.

“Nowhere is there a statement of any new legal standard,” Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary for civil rights, said at a meeting here last month where the report was released. “We already have long-standing, well-established educational principles about the use of tests on which many agree, and we’ve captured those, I hope, clearly in this document.”

For More Information

“The Use of Tests as Part of High- Stakes Decision-Making for Students: A Resource Guide for Educators and Policy- Makers” is available from the OCR.

Some education groups had expressed concerns that earlier drafts of the report would have a chilling effect on the use of standardized tests in education, while others described the tentative guidelines as useful at a time when many states are drafting new accountability policies. (“OCR Issues Revised Guidance on High- Stakes Testing,” Jan. 12, 2000.)

William L. Taylor, the vice chairman of the Washington-based Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a private watchdog group, described the final guidelines as “good news for public schoolchildren throughout the country.”

“The central question about testing in public schools is whether it will be used as a means to promote academic progress or as a barrier to the advancement of children,” he said.

The document includes separate chapters on the legal and test-measurement principles that should guide the proper use of assessments, including issues related to testing students with disabilities or limited English proficiency. OCR officials wrote the guidelines after extensive consultation with educators, civil rights groups, business leaders, lawyers, and test publishers over the past two years.

‘The Right Way’

“It’s not about ‘don’t use tests’ or ‘do use tests,’” said Scott R. Palmer, the deputy assistant secretary for the OCR. “It’s really about using tests the right way, that is beneficial to kids.” Used properly, Mr. Palmer argued, tests can promote both excellence and equity— hallmarks of the academic-standards movement.

But he acknowledged that, in some cases, “there are no completely clear answers: It’s a question of both what is educationally sound and legally appropriate.”

For example, he noted, while using tests as a requisite in awarding a high school diploma “certainly raises some issues,” it is not inherently or automatically a violation of civil rights laws. Similarly, evidence that a test results in significant disparities in the passing rates of white and African-American students does not, by itself, prove discrimination.

Defendants in lawsuits over tests, however, must prove that the policy is educationally justifiable, Mr. Palmer said, an area in which courts have shown substantial deference to educators’ judgments. And those challenging the use of such tests must demonstrate that an equally effective alternative is available that would result in lesser disparities.

Ms. Cantu said the report won’t have an effect unless state lawmakers and others read and use it. And she expressed hope that the incoming Bush administration would continue to make distribution of the information a priority.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as OCR Issues Guidelines on Using Tests For High-Stakes Decisions on Students

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